Saturday, August 06, 2016

reviews of the film Bad Moms propose that structural sexism isn't addressed, but perhaps that's not the only problem, perhaps Western ideologies about parenthood and individual potential have become a self-imposed double bind
The movie has been criticized, and rightfully so, for its failure to portray motherhood faithfully: These are upper-middle class parents who can afford to pay nannies, and their children are shoved off-screen whenever it’s convenient. Men, people of color, and animals are used as props, as they seem to have no place in a school that holds gluten-free bake sales. The movie’s writers, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore of Hangover fame, seem to say that the real problem for women is vengeance and jealousy amongst mothers, rather than the structural sexism that still defines parenting-roles today.

...  Motherhood is the oldest job in humanity, yet it’s only recently that it’s become a choice, and with that, a lifestyle.

Even bearing in mind how many women have been burdened with motherhood there are times when it seems that authors who contribute to The New Republic and Slate can sometimes drift toward what seems like a conflation of structural sexism with the results of reproduction itself. It seems as though we have ourselves a cultural moment where people are willing to celebrate everything about the sexual liberation we've experienced as a society in the last fifty odd years except for, maybe, the work of raising the children that still keep showing up as we have all this sex, almost as if that were what sexual reproduction explicitly accomplishes when practiced for long enough.

In fact I'm willing to go out on a limb and suggest that there's nothing about the film that I've been able to read so far that suggests the film was going to be about motherhood in any form beyond a tension between being a mother and the sexy stuff that happened that brought motherhood about.  Now perhaps people who are used to the idea that people just have sex whenever they successfully negotiate it and have sex may get the idea that structural sexism is going on but unless you're actually literally a rapist it seems as though all sexual intercourse is a negotiated privilege, even within a lifelong marriage that's lasted twenty or thirty years.  If men could bring forth children from their wombs, if they had wombs, then they
But Bad Moms’ essential message—to the extent it has one, beyond the thesis that partying with your besties rules—is that, rather than overturn the systems that cordon off “moms” from the rest of society by attempting to keep them at once as sacrosanct and as powerless as possible, women should look for the evil within the women around them—that the problem is other women, who seek their oppression for personal reasons of vengeance or jealousy. The role of structural sexism or—forgive me, but sometimes it’s the right word—the patriarchy in making good-enough motherhood in America all but impossible goes unexamined.

It would be interesting to know whether what's meant by structural sexism is the conundrum of work/life balance or whether in the arts and arts criticism we don't have an ideological paradigm afoot that pits art and domesticity against each other in ways that preclude their reconciliation.
 “You know, a lot of people glamorize the idea of being an artist. But of course then they find that actually it sucks and that no one gives a fuck and that they can’t succeed and they can’t monetize it and they can’t even get their work out into the world and it’s really hard and thankless and they’re spending untold hours at it and their friends are becoming successful in their chosen, normative fields and they’re like the weird loser who’s going to be a writer and it was so impressive when they were 23 and now they’re 33 and they still don’t have a book out … Well, sure, it’s great to say parenting is like my art and make beautiful Rice Krispy Treats with little candy unicorns on them or some shit. I mean, why not? I love Rice Krispy Treats. I have to finish this book in a few months, and it’s like hitting my head against a cement block. Give me the fucking Rice Krispy Treats.”
I knew this feeling too, but it didn’t feel like the full answer. I pressed her again on the question I’d been turning over in my mind: Why is it that writing (or really any creative pursuit) seems to be in such conflict with parenting?
She answered calmly, hardly raising her voice. “Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”   
I don’t know why it took me by surprise when she said this. I knew it to be true. I recalled an interview I read with one of my first writing teachers, Deborah Eisenberg, in which she says,, “Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.” Oscar Wilde said it is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known. Hippocrates tells us “Art is a revolt.”
People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families. [emphases added]
What if structural sexism is not merely sexism but the insoluable tension between our desire to feel loved and needed on the one hand with a contemporary Western resentment of those emotional and social bonds feeling like confinement and restriction on the other?  There seems to be a conflict between what's considered sexy and what's frequently the result of frequent-enough-sex, the children whose nurture depends on the activity of those who brought children into the world?  This might not just be a conflict for mothers, there could be just as many fathers who ended up abandoning youthful dreams because the responsibilities of parenthood bring with them abandoning your not-yet-accomplished dreams to ensure your children grow up.
The idea that the point of art is to unsettle is just foolish.  If you embrace an ideological stance about the arts that insists they have to have, well, an ideological purpose diametrically opposed to the stability of family life then the double bind would be, pretty obviously, self-imposed. It wouldn't be a matter of structural sexism (by itself), it would be a kind of unexamined set of values that become self-fulfilling prophecy.
In New York a few weeks ago, Kim Brooks asked whether creativity and domesticity are compatible in women’s lives. The relationship between art and parenthood is an evergreen topic that makes everyone—male or female, artist or not—feel a little bit anxious, for reasons specific to their life circumstances. (“I’m a bad parent!” “I’m not creative enough!” “Maybe I shouldn’t have kids!” “Maybe I should!”) I’m no exception; as a child-curious writer, I read this last salvo as soon as I saw the link. Target audience, c’est moi.

But there was one paragraph in Brooks’ piece, about the terrible husbands and dads of literary history, that I relished with particular glee. These “art monsters,” as writer Jenny Offill memorably termed them in her 2014 book Dept. of Speculation, are sometimes women, but they are most often men. The constraints they rail against are female, either explicitly or implicitly: requests for time and attention, petitions for financial support, or expectations of conformation to social norms. To such demands, the art monsters react poorly. “Baudelaire longed for escape from ‘the unendurable pestering of the women I live with,’ ” Brooks writes. “Verlaine tried to light his wife on fire … Faulkner’s 12-year-old daughter once asked him not to drink on his birthday, and he refused, telling her, ‘No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.’ ”
I don’t think it’s (just) the fascination of voyeurism that makes these anecdotes so compelling. I believe it’s a salutary exercise to look back at the bad marriages of the art monsters (and politics monsters, and sports monsters, and war monsters, and finance monsters) whose names are so prominent in our historical record. Remembering how the worst among them treated the women in their lives is one way to see the invisible labor—women’s labor—that went into nourishing, cleaning, arranging, regulating, and picking up the pieces at every turn. Like white space around a striking image, this reproductive work takes squinting to see. The work of maintaining is much less glamorous than the work of making, and leaves fewer traces. With this in mind, I propose the Historical Theory of the Bad Husband: as a good a way as any to see what’s hidden. ...

When you have people musing upon the arts with these kinds of conclusions then it seems more socially mature and well-adjusted to forsake the vocational arts for the sake of parenthood.  It seems like there could be some way of proposing that parenthood and activity in the arts don't have to be fundamentally at odds, but to propose this you'd have to come up with a different way of understanding the arts that doesn't define them up front as some kind of agitation propaganda against the status quo.

If we've living in an era in which some feminists ask why women still can't have it all the answer seems to be that nobody can have it all, not even the men at the top of the current pecking order--so we shouldn't be hugely shocked that along the way dealing with the world we live in means some dreams have to be cast aside or that pursuing path A means you have chosen to not take path B.  It seems as though the American authors who sound off on paths in life reject the idea that there are really opportunity costs, that once you choose a path other paths are actually closed off to you. 

And since parenthood these days is said to be a choice, it seems as though there could be room to ask why some of the mothers who write about motherhood couldn't be more direct in writing about what might be described as a kind of post-parental buyer's remorse.  If men tend to be expected to fit into their work-for-a-living-in-a-way-that-defines-his-social-identity in America then, yeah, it could seem unfair to women who choose parenthood to not be able to advance along the same path.  But what if the mere act of choosing to be a parent puts that kind of double bind on parents regardless of gender?   That so many men choose to keep pursuing career it doesn't necessarily mean the path they choose should be emulated, does it?

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